Wednesday, September 17, 2008

'Ant from Mars' found in Amazon jungle

Microscopic photo of Martialis heureka, the "ant from Mars" – scale bar, 1 mm (Image: C Rabeling and M Verhaagh/National Academy of Sciences)

A unique, blind, subterranean, predatory ant has been discovered in the Amazon rainforest.

On first sight, legend of evolutionary biology and ant expert Edward O Wilson of Harvard University quipped that it was so unusual that it must have come from Mars. Unfortunately, the specimens dried up and crumbled before they could be formally described.

Now a single specimen of the ant has been rediscovered near Manaus in the Brazilian rainforest, by Christian Rabeling of the University of Texas, Austin.

Remembering Wilson's joke, he named the ant Martialis heureka, meaning "ant from Mars, I found it!".

Adapted for life in the soil, the eyeless ant is 2 to 3 millimeters long, pale in colour, and has large mouthparts that appear specialised to feast on soft-bodied prey like insect larvae or worms. This combination of characteristics has never been recorded before, so the ant has been put in its own new subfamily – the first new subfamily of ants with living species discovered since 1923.

"It represents an old lineage of ants that appeared very early in ant evolution," says Rabeling's colleague Manfred Verhaagh of the Federal Natural History Museum in Karlsruhe, Germany.

"This shows that tropical soils are widely unexplored and may not only harbour many undiscovered species, but among them also relict species that keep traits from early evolutionary times."

Original here

Data on display

Two researchers explain why they're posting their experimental results online.

Jean-Claude-Bradley (left) and Cameron Neylon.Jean-Claude-Bradley (left) and Cameron Neylon.Drexel Univ.; C. Neylon

Risking being scooped and having patents refused, some scientists are posting their data online as they produce them. Organic chemist Jean-Claude Bradley of Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and biochemist Cameron Neylon of the University of Southampton, UK, describe this 'open notebook' approach.

What is an 'open notebook'?

Bradley: The basic philosophy of open-notebook science is to have no insider information. Essentially all the information that is available to the [research] group is available to the rest of the world. You have an objective, a procedure and a log section, in which you report what you actually do. Then you've got your raw data files, and you link to those. That is all the information that any scientist needs to be able to figure out what you did and to analyse it. I use a wiki space that gives me a time stamp on the entries.

Neylon: We're aiming to improve scientific communication. The ultimate form would be if everything were available as it happened. That's never going to be for everybody. You still have issues such as patient privacy, the safety of people doing animal experimentation and so on. So in some cases, data shouldn't be made fully or immediately available.

What are the main concerns?

Neylon: The main issue is the fear of rivals stealing data. The second one is: will I be able to publish? And that depends on the publisher. Most publishers regard what we do as the equivalent of presenting at a conference, or a preprint. That hasn't been tested across a wide range of publishers, and there's at least one — the American Chemical Society — that doesn't allow prepublication in any form whatsoever. There's also a legitimate concern that a lot of people will put out a lot of rubbish.

Is this going to make traditional publishing obsolete?

Bradley: No. I'm publishing a paper [based on work that is openly available on my online notebook]. The notebook is about publishing data as quickly as possible. The paper is about synthesizing knowledge from all those results. But we want the best of both worlds, so we want to publish using traditional channels and we want to link back to the notebook.

Are scientists working in industry interested in the idea?

Neylon: The people within companies who are trying to do this are finding it a very hard sell to the board but it is being talked about.

Bradley: If patenting is important to you, you cannot do open-notebook science, it's that simple. But in big pharma, there's an awful lot of background data, which they call precompetitive work, which are really valuable to other people but end up not being as valuable to the company.

Has your open notebook ever been used to claim priority over a discovery?

Neylon: On our blog we had a statement with evidence that a piece of research worked before a paper from another group came out, although probably after the paper was submitted. I'm interested in putting the statement "we were the first to report it" in our paper when we publish the work and seeing what the response is. People's views differ about whether that would be reasonable.

When will the idea become more popular?

Neylon: Open notebooks are practical but tough at the moment. My feeling is that the tools are not yet easy enough to use. But I would say that a larger proportion of people will be publishing electronically and openly in ten years.

Bradley: There are different ways to do this. If you use a wiki-based approach, that's something you could do overnight. But the whole lab needs to realize that it's something they need to do.

Neylon: An important point that sometimes get missed about electronic systems is that other people might be looking at them, so they tend to force much higher standards of record-keeping. The record becomes much better and more flexible, but it involves a lot more work to keep it up to date.

Original here

Will the Internet Evolve into a Lifeform?

Lifeform Some think that sentience could emerge from any sufficiently complicated system. By the way, you're reading this on a massively-crosslinked network built from millions of routers, allowing any of a billion individual units to access, modify and reply to the others. Interested?

Computer programs are already exhibiting many of the characteristics of organic lifeforms, up to and including evolution - hilarious, since they're the only things that really are "Intelligently Designed" - and there's no reason to believe that life or awareness are exclusively organic attributes. You could say we've only ever seen chemical-based constructs which are alive, but in the past the same argument could have been applied to things moving under their own power, flight or the ability to count - and it turns out we've built machines that are sort of far better at all those things than the fleshy equivalents. If there is a magic "life-chemical" mixed in with all the blood and guts, we haven't found it.

Others would object that only beings with souls can ever be truly alive, but such people rarely have anything useful (or even sensible) to say on the subjects of evolution or technology and so can be safely ignored.

The question is now what form this life would take. While the movies teach us that evil cybernetic intelligences are created in military research labs, with the occasional time-traveling component mixed in, the most likely environment is wherever has the greatest connectivity, diversity and sheer quantity of data flow. That's right, the internet.

One route is the evolution of electronic intelligences in situations like the internet-arms race between spammers and shielders. It might sound silly, the idea that new life could be created in an attempt to offer you a great deal on C1@Lis!!, but have you tried registering for a forum recently? Even gaining access to the lowest level of interaction online now requires elementary Turing tests to tell the humans from the robots.

Another option is the idea of the net itself becoming sentient, a vast self-modifying array of connections and information storage with limited connections to the outside world (kind of like that glob of grey goo you carry around in your skull). If that happens then Gibson help us all - remember that the net is made of about 90% spam, 9% porn, and quite a lot of whining blogs. If that mixture ever becomes self-aware we're not quite sure what it'll do, but the odds are against it being anything good.

Posted by Luke McKinney.

Original here

Former FCC Chairman Blasts Claim That McCain Invented The Blackberry: He Is ‘So Out Of Touch’

large_mccain.jpg Speaking to reporters today, McCain campaign adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin claimed that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is responsible for the “miracle” of PDAs. Waving around his Blackberry, Holtz-Eakin said:

He did this. … Telecommunications of the United States is a premier innovation in the past 15 years, comes right through the Commerce committee so you’re looking at the miracle John McCain helped create and that’s what he did.

ThinkProgress received a response today from former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, who sharply criticized Holtz-Eakin’s claim:

John McCain is so out of touch with America his economics adviser says he deserves credit for creating the Canadian company that invented the Blackberry. Message to Republicans: it’s American entrepreneurship our President is supposed to encourage.

ThinkProgress also spoke with Blair Levin, who is currently Managing Director at Stifel Nicolaus and served as Hundt’s chief of staff at the FCC. Levin pointed out that McCain actually voted against the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OBRA ‘93) that “authorized the spectrum auctions that created the competitive wireless market that gave rise to companies like Research in Motion [the creator of Blackberry].”

This is not the first time that McCain has tried to take credit for a technological innovation he actively opposed. In a 2000 GOP presidential debate, he took credit for E-Rate, a program designed to wire schools:

We took a major step forward when we decided to wire every school and library in America to the Internet. That’s a good program.

McCain, however, opposed E-Rate in the late ’90s, concerned about the impact it might have on the telecom industry. Groups such as the American Library Association were so outraged that they encouraged their members to contact obstinate senators, including McCain. More here on McCain’s paltry record as Senate Commerce Committee chairman.

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Polar bears 'could become extinct' because of melting ice, scientists claim

By Louise Gray
Polar bears and other rare species are in danger of dying out, scientists fear, as latest figures show the Artic sea ice is at record lows.
Scientists from the World Wildlife Fund, who are recording the ice cover over the North Pole, said less ice is predicted in the Arctic this year than in any other.

Experts say this not only means a loss of habitat to species like polar bears and loss of livelihood for indigenous peoples but could speed up global warming as water absorbs heat rather than reflecting the sun's rays back into space.

Dr Martin Sommerkorn, senior climate change advisor at WWF International's Arctic Programme, said: "We are expecting confirmation of 2008 being either the lowest or the second-lowest year in terms of summer ice coverage.

"This means two years in a row of record lows since we started recording Arctic sea ice coverage.

"The trend of melting Arctic sea ice is alarming for the rest of the world. The Arctic is a key factor in stabilising the global climate so this is a global problem that demands an immediate and global response."

The area of ice that is at least five years old has dramatically fallen by more than half since 1985. It comes as the Northwest Passage, over the top of North America and the Northeast Passage, in Russia, are both free of ice for the first time.

Dr Sommerkorn added: "Arctic ice is like a mirror, reflecting the sun's heat back into space.

"As that ice goes, Arctic waters absorb more heat, adding to global warming. Warming of the Arctic will soon release more greenhouse gases from the Arctic that were previously locked in permanently frozen ground."

The WWF is now calling on the UK Government to help stabilise Arctic sea ice by slowing global warming through the Climate Change Bill, championing a stronger EU Climate and Energy Package and a more ambitious UN climate agreement to come into force from 2013.

David Norman, Director of Campaigns at WWF-UK said: "The worrying trend in Arctic sea ice loss provides the clearest evidence yet for the need to decisively tackle climate change now, both at a national and a global level. "The coming year will also be crucial for global climate negotiations and we expect to see the Prime Minister driving forward a courage."

Original here

New Energy Project Will Be Even Larger than the Pickens Plan

Court Rules Against Bush Plan to Allow Snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park

Palin Changes Position on Global Warming - Then Denies It

Pickens Overlooks Existing Natural Gas Cars in Energy Plan: Reality Check

By Mike Allen
Self-made billionaire and self-proclaimed energy guru T. Boone Pickens has been all over the media and the Web this summer, with his energy evangelism gaining added traction as we count down the last 50 days to the election. Pickens wants to reduce our dependence on foreign energy as rapidly as possible, and he's willing to put his money where his mouth is.

As part of his viral video-powered campaign, then, Pickens wants to put $160 million behind his case for natural gas-powered vehicles. Central to that plan is the development of the so-called Standard Taxi (pictured above), which looks sort of like a London taxi made from Lego blocks. I can only speculate as to why it's so unconscionably ugly.

That being said, I happen to agree 100-percent with Pickens' assertion that converting a healthy proportion of the U.S. fleet to run on compressed natural gas (CNG) would provide tremendous medium-range solutions to our energy issues—no question about it. We have plenty of NG reserves, especially right offshore and in the Arctic. The infrastructure to carry it around the country is mature. There are many advantages to running a car or truck on CNG, especially for fleets that always return to a central location for refueling during the day or overnight. It's a clean-burning fuel, and a dedicated CNG vehicle can have almost the same range as a gas or diesel-powered one.

But, yo, T. Boone! Wake up and smell the coffee. There's little need to spend major amounts of money to develop an all-new CNG vehicle, because there are plenty to be had already. Everything from city buses to fork lifts to passenger cars are available with CNG drivetrains right now. Honda sells the Civic GX, with a 170-mile range. Not only that, but there are many places that will convert your vehicle to run on CNG in addition to leaving the conventional fuel injection intact, so you can switch back and forth at will. You can even buy kits that let you do this yourself. Live too far from a CNG station? Buy Phill, a CNG compressor that hooks up to the city natural gas line already running your stove, furnace and water heater, then refuel yourself at home.

Of course, there are still only 1000-or-so publicly accessible CNG stations in the country. Refueling a vehicle with a 3600-psi tank full of explosive methane might seem daunting, but rational consideration leads to the conclusion that it's actually safer than gasoline. Think about it: Gasoline will pool under a damaged vehicle and run along the surface, spreading a fire. A partially filled tank can explode if damaged, and gasoline vapors will pool in low areas and explode. Gasoline has a very wide explosive range, meaning it will explode over a very wide range of mixture ratios with air.

Natural gas, on the other hand, is lighter than air and will quickly dissipate by itself if it's vented. It won't pool, and it has a very narrow explosive range by comparison. If they invented gasoline today, frankly, they'd probably say it was too dangerous and never bring it to market.

Rhetoric aside, CNG has enormous potential, and unlike hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles or electrics or PHEVs, it's one with very few engineering hurdles to jump.

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Carbon Nanotubes Might Be Used in Future Water Filters